Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a controversial figure in American feminism, passed away last week at 65. The career of this remarkable writer and scholar illustrates the complexities and challenges of 20th- and 21st-century feminism. She evolved from a left-wing Marxist feminist into a deeply conservative Catholic anti feminist, two positions that are equally alien to me. Yet she managed, along the way, to raise many important questions and offer many brilliant insights.
I first met Fox-Genovese in the early 1990s, at the midpoint in her transition. Our acquaintance began when I was asked to review her 1991 book, "Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism." At the time, Fox-Genovese was still a bona fide feminist and the director of the women's studies program at Emory University in Atlanta. An individualist feminist myself, I liked the book far more than I expected. Academic feminist critiques of "male" individualism were quite common by that time. However, Fox-Genovese praised the accomplishments of individualism in challenging oppression and championing freedom and equity. She urged her fellow feminists to acknowledge their debt to Western individualism—but also to formulate a new vision of "collective social life" that would protect members of the community, including women whose self-reliance is circumscribed by motherhood.
While Fox-Genovese argued that feminists must recognize the importance of biological sex differences in some areas, she had no patience with the academic feminist trend of viewing women and men as possessing completely different values. Nor did she buy the idea that women's natural instincts and experience of oppression gave them a superior capacity for justice and mercy. "Those who have experienced dismissal by the junior high school girls' clique," she memorably wrote, "could hardly, with a straight face, claim generosity and nurture as a natural attribute of women."
After my review appeared, I received a gracious note from Fox-Genovese (Betsy to her friends), and eventually met her in person. Despite our disagreements—I was a free market individualist, she a social democrat—we shared many of the same concerns about the direction of feminism, particularly the intolerance toward dissent, the demonization of men, and the tendency to cast male-female relations as a male "war against women." For a while, these concerns led us to collaboration. Fox-Genovese joined the board of the Women's Freedom Network, a group I helped found in 1994 that sought to provide an alternative to both conservative anti feminism and feminist orthodoxy. She was an impressive speaker whose intelligence and strength of conviction always shone through.
Fox-Genovese's 1996 book, " 'Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life': How Today's Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch with the Real Concerns of Women," further developed her critique of feminism's neglect of family, marriage, and motherhood. At the time, Fox-Genovese made recommendations that many mainstream feminists could have agreed with, such as more European-style social programs that would help women combine work and motherhood. Yet she was drifting further away from the entire feminist enterprise (she had left her women's studies post at Emory in 1992). I was startled to see in her articles a growing sympathy toward arguments for distinct sex roles rooted in female domesticity and submission.
Later, I learned that in 1995, Fox-Genovese converted to Catholicism, partly as a result of her opposition to assisted suicide and, increasingly, to abortion. Hers was a strongly traditionalist faith that rejected any liberalization of women's roles in the church. In her final years, she passionately embraced the ideal of self-sacrifice as a feminine calling, and denounced feminists for undermining that ideal and replacing it with individual pride.
Fox-Genovese's journey from Marxism to Catholic traditionalism—shared by her husband, historian Eugene Genovese—could be seen, from a classical liberal point of view, in starkly negative terms: as a full-circle transition from one anti-individualist, antiliberal philosophy to another. Yet when it comes to women's issues, her critique of individualism contains an important kernel of truth. Reconciling women's pursuit of their new roles, freedoms, and opportunities with the needs of families and children has often been a rocky road, as several generations of feminism's daughters have found out.
As a feminist, I regret that the answer on which Fox-Genovese eventually settled was a return to a clear-cut division of male and female family roles. But the questions she confronted are ones feminists will continue to confront for a long time to come.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.